Monday, November 16, 2015

My Friend Annie: A Thanksgiving Reflection on Jonestown

It was a long time ago, but I remember the moment vividly. We were lying in our sleeping bags, three or four of us, on a wooden tent platform in the Sierra Nevada. The night sky was dense with bright stars. The conversation turned cosmic: we were, after all, teenagers, and it was the summer of 1971. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. Annie was emphatic—she wanted to dedicate her life to helping other people. It was a fine sentiment but it struck me as strangely self-erasing. I was focused on finding out what I wanted to be and what I would achieve. The idea that someone would set all that aside and submerge her self to help others was simply beyond me.

Soon enough Bob Brooks, the U.C. Davis wresting coach and camp director, trudged past and told us to knock it off and get to sleep. Tomorrow was the first day of camp and we would all be on deck as counselors. It was the annual Foster Children’s Camp, sponsored by the Davis Methodist Church. We worked all year to make it happen. In March, the Davis Enterprise ran a photo of a bunch of us at the spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Here it is.

I’m in the back in glasses, sleeves rolled up, holding a handful of cash. Annie is seated at the head of the table, her long hair parted in the middle. She was a year ahead of me in high school. She was tall, thin, and pretty and had a dry sense of humor. Everyone liked her.

Annie and I had been acquaintances since her family moved to Davis in 1966. Her father, John Moore, had been pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Methodist Church and came to Davis to be the campus minister. Our family attended Davis Methodist Church. My father was a philosophy professor at U.C.D. and often played the organ at services. He had an interest in comparative religion and would later teach some of the first religious studies courses on campus.

Davis was on the forefront of 1960’s liberalism. Our church took up a collection to send our pastor, Rev. Phil Walker, to the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Rev. Moore fit right in—taking part in anti-Viet Nam war protests and providing moral support as Cal Aggie students burned their draft cards.

I recall our family, along with others, being invited to the Moore’s house for Thanksgiving in 1966. It was an unremarkable event. Annie’s older sister Carolyn was there along with her boyfriend, who struck me as a bit odd and standoffish. For some reason, I remember one detail in particular: when most of the guys moved to the den to watch football on TV, he didn’t join us. The ten-year-old me found that weird.

By 1972, our Foster Children’s Camp days were over. High school ended, I headed to Berkeley for college and found my calling in science. Annie got a nursing degree. I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school at Penn. My Davis friends told me Annie had joined a religious commune. That didn’t seem strange—after all, she wanted to help people.

News of the November 18, 1978 Jonestown massacre hit me like a brick. I soon realized that the creepy boyfriend on that distant Thanksgiving was Larry Layton, who took part in the deadly ambush of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party at the Port Kaituma airport. I searched the New York Times for mention of Annie and found it: she was dead with all the rest. Unlike the rest, she died in Jim Jones’ cabin of a gunshot to the head. She did not drink the Kool-Aid. Nor did Jones.

For a time, I struggled to make sense of her role in that evil place of death. I told myself she was too smart, too caring, to have joined in mass murder. She must have resisted, perhaps tried to stop Jones with a gun in the last moments.

And then the circumstances of her death made the papers. On the table, next to her body, was a notebook filled with her final thoughts as the carnage took place around her. Was it a plea for help? A diatribe against the sick bastard who took out 900 people and left them to rot in the jungle?

No. It was an earnest tribute to Jim Jones, “the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew.” Jonestown was a “paradise,” “the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.”

“What a beautiful place this was.”

I look at the newspaper clippings and high school yearbook photos and wonder how this smart, goodhearted girl ended up in Jonestown with her head blown off. How did she go from the sincere, amorphous ideals of that Sierra summer to arranging cyanide-laced drinks and lethal injections for the people she claimed to care about?

The standard answer, I suppose, is that she came under the sway of a cult leader. That may be true, but it is also true that the evil inherent in Jim Jones was apparent all along, well before the final days in Jonestown. By his own account, Annie’s father had been uneasy about Jones from early on when his older daughter Carolyn became involved with the Peoples Temple. But it’s also clear that he and his wife were hamstrung by their devotion to the liberal pieties, shared by Jones, of reducing poverty, improving race relations, and ending the war. When they visited their daughters in Guyana before the massacre, John Moore saw things that made him uneasy but he also approvingly noted the “no smoking” signs in the encampment.

Jones rose quickly in San Francisco’s political arena because his views were in synch with the emerging liberal establishment that found him useful. With the Peoples Temple congregation at his beck and call, Jones could deliver crowds for events and door-to-door campaigning, and San Francisco Democrat pols like Willie Brown, George Moscone, and John Burton were happy to take advantage.

No one stopped to question the assumptions of the day: that human nature can be shaped by decree, that a utopia can be ours for the asking. And so while Jim Jones led his flock in a mad dance toward death, the earnest, well-meaning, forward-thinking people of the Bay Area looked on approvingly, and my friend Annie knowingly and deliberately took part in mass murder.

I have visited her grave in Davis. I felt sad about the waste of a promising life. But I feel worse about the delusions of the 60s that wrecked so many lives and that continue to wreak havoc today.

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